Tag Archives: disability employment

Autism Acceptance Week: Sensory Friendly Events!!

As Autism Acceptance Week kicks off, communities and groups worldwide are getting ready with a variety of fun, welcoming, and informative activities.

These activities celebrate the autism spectrum’s diversity and offer learning, connecting, and personal growth opportunities. This blog post features three standout events. They are perfect for anyone interested in the autism community, whether you’re directly affected, a family member, an educator, or just a supporter. The following online and in-person events are set to provide valuable experiences for all who attend.

Dr. Temple Grandin: The Hidden Gifts of Visual Thinkers

First on our list is an inspiring lecture by Dr. Temple Grandin, one of the most accomplished and well-known adults with autism in the world. Hosted by the Hayner Public Library District, this event promises to shed light on “The Hidden Gifts of Visual Thinkers.” Dr. Grandin, a professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, has made groundbreaking contributions to autism advocacy and animal behavior research. Her ability to see the world differently has revolutionized our approach to both fields. Attendees will gain insight into how thinking in pictures can be a tremendous asset and explore the unique talents that individuals on the spectrum can bring to our communities and workplaces.

Event details and registration can be found on the Hayner Library website. Given Dr. Grandin’s influence and the invaluable perspectives she offers, this is an event you won’t want to miss.

Animals Aglow at the Saint Louis Zoo

You can also check out “Animals Aglow,” a visually stunning event hosted by the Saint Louis Zoo. This family-friendly exhibit transforms the zoo into an illuminated wonderland, featuring larger-than-life animal lanterns that guide you through an enchanting journey. Designed with sensory sensitivities in mind, this event offers a mesmerizing experience that can be enjoyed by individuals of all ages, including those on the autism spectrum. The zoo’s commitment to inclusivity and accessibility makes “Animals Aglow” a perfect outing for Autism Acceptance Week, combining the beauty of nature with the magic of light art.

For more information about event dates and tickets, visit the Saint Louis Zoo’s official website.

 

 

 

 

Low Sensory Sundays at Six Flags St. Louis – Starting April 7th

Whether you are a kid or just a kid at heart, don’t miss “Low Sensory Sundays” at Six Flags St. Louis, starting April 7th. These special days are made with sensory sensitivities in mind, adjusting lights and sounds for a more comfortable experience. Six Flags is committed to ensuring that everyone can enjoy their attractions, and it is making a great effort to welcome guests on the autism spectrum.

For more information, visit the Six Flags St. Louis website, which details Low Sensory Sundays, including dates and accommodations.

Other Ways to Support

In addition to attending these events, there are several ways you can contribute to the cause and support autism acceptance:

  1. Educate Yourself and Others: Learn more about autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and share your knowledge to help foster understanding and acceptance.
  2. Volunteer: Give your time to organizations that support individuals with autism, whether it’s during Autism Acceptance Week or any time of year.
  3. Donate: Consider donating to programs and research initiatives dedicated to improving the lives of those affected by autism.
  4. Advocate: Raise awareness and advocate for policies that support the rights and needs of the autism community.
  5. Support Local Programs: Engage with and support local autism programs and services—they are often on the front lines of providing direct support and resources.
  6. Social Media Engagement: Use your online platforms to promote autism acceptance, share information about events, and engage with initiatives like #StrengthInDiversity and #ItsOkToBeDifferent.

Join the Celebration

Autism Acceptance Week is more than just a series of events; it’s a movement towards understanding, inclusion, and celebration of the diverse spectrum of human experience. By participating in events like these, we can all contribute to a more accepting and supportive society.

Whether you’re learning from Dr. Temple Grandin’s insights, marveling at the luminous displays at the Saint Louis Zoo, or enjoying the thrills of Six Flags with a sensory-friendly twist, you’re participating in a global celebration of autism acceptance.

Let’s come together to support, learn from, and celebrate the autism community, not just during Autism Acceptance Week but every day.

Support Our Programs

Remember that supporting our programs is one of the most direct ways to contribute. They are tailored to empower autistic individuals, providing them with opportunities to succeed at achieving their goals. You’re positively impacting someone’s life and contributing to a more inclusive community by getting involved with our programs. Contact us to find out how you can join our mission at Challenge Unlimited.

Click Here to Make A Donation to our Autism Acceptance Campaign!

Celebrating Leadership and Community Service

Recognizing a Trailblazer: Charlotte Hammond Receives the Martin Luther King Drum Major Award 

Charlotte Hammond, the CEO of Challenge Unlimited, has recently been honored with the prestigious Martin Luther King Drum Major Award. This accolade, presented by the St. Louis Urban League, is not just a recognition of her professional accomplishments but a testament to her dedication to fostering an inclusive and equitable community. Read more about the event, speakers, and honorees here.

A New Chapter: Appointment to the City of St. Louis Workforce Development Board

Further cementing her role as a community leader, Hammond is set to be sworn in on January 17th to the City of St. Louis Workforce Development Board, (WDB). This significant appointment reflects her deep commitment to workforce development and her expertise in creating pathways for employment and training. 

The Impact of the WDB and SLATE in St. Louis 

The WDB, as the governing entity, plays a crucial role in overseeing the programs implemented by the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment (SLATE). These initiatives are vital for the economic development of St. Louis, providing essential support to job seekers and businesses. Through adult and youth programs, the WDB and SLATE focus on upgrading basic and occupational skills, thereby enhancing the workforce’s overall capabilities. 

A Diverse and Committed Board 

The WDB is composed of a minimum of twenty-three volunteer citizens appointed by the Mayor. This diverse group includes representatives from local businesses, public and community-based agencies, and labor organizations. Their collective efforts ensure that the workforce development programs are aligned with the city’s needs and are effectively implemented. 

A Visionary Leader 

Charlotte Hammond’s journey is one of inspiring leadership and unwavering commitment to community service. Her achievements, recognized by the Martin Luther King Drum Major Award and her appointment to the WDB, highlight her exceptional ability to lead, innovate, and uplift the community. In her new role with the WDB, her participation will surely enhance employment opportunities for the citizens of St. Louis, focusing on bringing these opportunities to underserved communities and opening new avenues for workforce development and growth in the city.

Charlotte’s story is a powerful reminder of one individual’s impact on a community. Her leadership at Challenge Unlimited and her involvement with the WDB showcase a career dedicated to creating opportunities and fostering growth. As St. Louis looks forward, it does so with a remarkable leader among its ranks, ready to drive change and make a lasting difference.

About Challenge Unlimited 

For over 60 years, Challenge Unlimited has operated as a social enterprise committed to serving individuals with disabilities while earning a reputation as a trusted business partner to private commercial companies and federal and state government agencies. As an accredited Community Rehabilitation Program (CRP) provider, Challenge Unlimited fulfills its mission through employment programs and services, skills training centers, and community-integrated living options.  

For media inquiries, please contact:
Stephanie Schrage, Marketing Manager
sschrage@cuinc.org
(618)462-4593 

 

“EmployAbility” – Disability Employment, a largely untapped and underutilized workforce

Exclusive Premiere!!

Challenge Unlimited has been a leader in prioritizing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in the workforce for over 60 years. As an AbilityOne provider we are committed to providing quality services in a safe environment for individuals of all abilities.

Watch the video to see what Tim, Bobby & Tyler have to say about working at Challenge Unlimited.

Looking to expand your workforce and prioritize DEI?

Contact us today to join the EmployAbility Initiative.

AbilityOne Film COMING November 8th!!

Tim is one of a few employees that were recently interviewed for our short film highlighting the success of our Challenge Unlimited  teams.


⭐Our “EmployAbility” Video Premieres November 8th⭐ 📽

Follow us on social media or sign up for our newsletter to hear the stories highlighting the success of these amazing individuals working on our AbilityOne Contracts at Scott Air Force Base. You won’t want to miss it!

Special thanks to their Public Affairs Department for working with us on base so we could share these amazing stories.

From the Heartland to Capitol Hill

♪ “I’m goin’ to Jackson, but I’m not gonna mess around.” ♪

Johnny Cash’s iconic words resonate with a different journey today – the journey towards creating a brighter future for disability employment. In Mississippi, 256,889 individuals ages 18 to 64 identify as having a disability, and 64% of those individuals are unemployed. (Mississippi By The Numbers)

Advocating for Change from Jackson to D.C.

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and GSA Jackson team member Jeffie Walker is not a statistic. He exemplifies the transformative power of inclusion and the strides made in the workforce, but we have a long way to go. He can assure you that individuals with disabilities are not “messing around” but are seizing their rightful place in the world of employment, and his journey is a testament to his determination and resilience in the face of adversity.

Jeffie’s Story

Mr. Jeffie Walker is a self-proclaimed “huge sports fan” and aspires to own his own home so that he can have the “man cave” of his dreams. His story is just one example of how individuals with disabilities can overcome challenges to achieve outstanding success, but the path was not without its obstacles.

After earning a Mass Communications degree from Jackson State University, Jeffie encountered difficulties securing employment due to his disability. However, he refused to be disheartened and, with the unwavering support of his family, friends, and counselors, embarked on a new journey within the AbilityOne Program.

He began as a janitor in the McCoy Federal building in downtown Jackson, Mississippi. Over eight years in this role, Mr. Walker displayed unparalleled dedication and work ethic, becoming an integral part of his workplace. However, uncertainty loomed when the company he worked for lost the contract.

A Chance to Shine

During this critical period, Challenge Unlimited recognized Mr. Walker’s exceptional qualities and not only retained him on the team but was promoted to the building’s sole Floor Care Technician. This marked a significant milestone, his first-ever promotion, and an accompanying raise.

Among his numerous accomplishments within the AbilityOne Program, Mr. Walker is incredibly proud of his promotion. This achievement highlights his dedication and showcases his potential for growth. Jeffie’s success led him to be selected to represent his company and coworkers in Washington, D.C., at the SourceAmerica Grassroots Advocacy Conference, showcasing his ability to advocate for the program’s mission and the contributions of individuals like him. He’s funny, charismatic, and a delight to be around.

Winning

He was nominated by his supervisors for the SourceAmerica William M. Usdane Award, which serves as a powerful reminder that individuals with disabilities are invaluable assets to the workforce and can thrive when given the opportunity. This nomination is more than just a recognition of his achievements; it’s a beacon of hope for others facing similar challenges.

While the award’s winner has yet to be selected, Jeffie is already a winner in our book. He is committed to his job, and his dedication to advocating for himself and others is exemplary. “To be honest, I think people with disabilities can do just as well or even better jobs if given support and guidance,” said Walker. He exemplifies the transformative power of determination, hard work, and the impact of a supportive work environment. We firmly believe that Mr. Walker deserves to be celebrated for his achievements. Jeffie can inspire countless others to overcome obstacles and pursue their dreams. He is proof that you can achieve anything you put your mind to.

Click below to listen to Jeffie’s speech.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Challenge Unlimited and Knights of Columbus Join Forces to Support Individuals with Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities

Individuals are pictured in from of a Blue banner with Challenge Unlimited Logo
Pictured from left to right: John Becker, CU Vice President of Programs, Mark Droste, Knights or Columbus Alton Council 460, Andy Esterer, Executive Vice President of Finance

The Knights of Columbus annually hosts their “Tootsie Roll” Drive fundraiser. They organize and coordinate the event and distribute the funds raised to provide much needed support to local organizations who provide services and quality-of-life programming for people living with intellectual  and developmental disabilities.

This is a statewide fundraiser that has been going on for many years and it also helps to raise awareness, advocacy, the importance of diversity and inclusion for everyone.  Each year, the staff and clients from Challenge Unlimited, and other organizations volunteer to support the event and receive a portion of the funds.

Partnerships with local organizations like the Knights of Columbus Council 460, Illinois are so important to our mission. Today representative, Mark Droste, stopped in and presented a check from the 2022 fundraiser to our Executive Vice President of Finance, Andy Esterer and Vice President of Programs, John Becker.

We want to express our sincere gratitude to the Knights for your generous donation of $3,500. These funds will be used to support our programming for the 2023-2024 Fiscal Year to increase the opportunities we can provide for the individuals that we serve.

Celebrating Labor Day: Workforce Innovation and the history of disability employment

Introduction 

Labor Day, observed on the first Monday of September in the United States, is a day dedicated to honoring the contributions and achievements of the American workforce. While this holiday traditionally celebrates the labor movement and the gains made by workers, it’s also an excellent opportunity to reflect on the progress made in the realm of disability employment throughout history. In this blog post, we will explore the rich history of disability employment and the milestones achieved in promoting inclusivity and equal opportunities for all workers. 

The Early Struggles 

Historically, individuals with disabilities faced significant barriers when seeking employment. Discrimination, prejudice, and misconceptions about their abilities limited their opportunities in the workforce. However, there were a few bright spots in the early history of disability employment. The Civil War, for example, saw the employment of disabled veterans in various government positions, laying the groundwork for later disability employment initiatives. 

World War I and II: Turning Points 

The world wars brought about significant changes in the landscape of disability employment. As large numbers of soldiers returned home with disabilities, there was a growing recognition of the need to support them in their transition to civilian life. The Rehabilitation Act of 1918 marked a crucial step forward by providing vocational training and employment opportunities for disabled veterans. 

World War II further accelerated these efforts, leading to the establishment of the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program by the Veterans Administration (now the Department of Veterans Affairs). This program aimed to provide disabled veterans with training, job placement services, and support to reintegrate into the workforce. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) 

One of the most significant milestones in the history of disability employment in the United States was the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. This landmark legislation prohibited discrimination against individuals with disabilities in various aspects of life, including employment. Under the ADA, employers were required to provide reasonable accommodations to enable qualified individuals with disabilities to perform their job duties effectively. 

The ADA not only provided legal protection but also raised awareness about the importance of inclusive workplaces. This led to greater inclusivity in hiring practices and the removal of physical and attitudinal barriers that had previously hindered disabled individuals’ employment opportunities. 

AbilityOne Program 

The AbilityOne Program is a shining example of how innovative initiatives can promote disability employment and inclusivity in the workforce. Established in 1938, this federal program has been instrumental in creating job opportunities for people with disabilities while delivering valuable products and services to the government.  

In the quest for a more inclusive and equitable workforce, programs like the AbilityOne Program stand as beacons of hope. This initiative, deeply rooted in the principles of social responsibility and equality, has made significant strides in facilitating disability employment in the United States. In this blog post, we will explore the remarkable journey of the AbilityOne Program and its pivotal role in fostering employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities. 

As we celebrate Labor Day, let us reflect on the importance of work, let us recognize and support programs like AbilityOne that are making a difference in the lives of people with disabilities, proving that talent knows no bounds when given the right opportunities. 

Technology and Remote Work 

Advances in technology have played a pivotal role in improving employment prospects for people with disabilities. The rise of remote work and digital accessibility initiatives have created new opportunities for disabled individuals to participate in the workforce. Accessible technology, screen readers, and other assistive devices have empowered individuals with disabilities to excel in various professions. 

Companies are increasingly recognizing the value of a diverse and inclusive workforce, which includes employees with disabilities. Many organizations are implementing policies and practices to support disability employment and foster a more inclusive workplace culture. 

Conclusion 

On this Labor Day, it’s important to acknowledge the progress made in the realm of disability employment throughout history. From the early struggles to the passage of the ADA, to the Wagner-O’Day Act, into the innovation of the AbilityOne Program, and the technological advancements of today, there has been a remarkable transformation in the opportunities available to individuals with disabilities.  

However, there is still work to be done to ensure full inclusivity and equal access to employment for all. By continuing to raise awareness, advocate for disability rights, and promote inclusive workplaces, we can build a future where everyone has the opportunity to contribute their skills and talents to the workforce. 

At Challenge Unlimited, we are incredibly grateful for the dedication, hard work, and passion that our workforce brings to the table every day. You are the backbone of our organization, and your commitment to excellence is what makes us shine. Through thick and thin, you’ve shown resilience, adaptability, and unwavering support, and for that, we say THANK YOU!

Let’s continue to inspire, innovate, and achieve greatness together.

Empowering Independence & Inclusion through AbilityOne partnerships

In a world that thrives on diversity and inclusivity, creating opportunities for individuals with disabilities is not just a moral imperative, but also a strategic advantage for any society. The AbilityOne Program stands as a shining example of how public-private partnerships can drive empowerment, independence, and inclusion for people with disabilities while delivering high-quality products and services to the federal government.

Understanding the AbilityOne Program:
The AbilityOne Program, administered by the U.S. AbilityOne Commission, is a federal initiative that creates job opportunities for individuals with significant disabilities through contracts with nonprofit organizations. These organizations employ individuals with disabilities to produce goods and services for the federal government, fostering an environment of self-sufficiency and personal growth.

Key Objectives and Benefits

Employment Opportunities: The program provides meaningful employment to people with disabilities, enabling them to contribute to society while achieving financial independence.

Inclusion and Diversity: AbilityOne promotes an inclusive workplace, demonstrating that diversity is not a limitation but a strength that can drive innovation and creativity.

High-Quality Products and Services: The goods and services delivered through the AbilityOne Program meet stringent federal standards, underscoring the capabilities of a diverse workforce.

Positive Economic Impact: By generating jobs and contributing to the economy, the program reduces the reliance on government assistance programs.

Community Building: The program nurtures a sense of community among participants, fostering personal relationships and support networks that extend beyond the workplace.

The Numbers

Approximately 450 non profit agencies across the country participate as partners to the AbilityOne Program employing over 40,000 individuals  with significant disabilities. In Illinois alone there are 701,035 individuals who identify as having a significant disability. The state has 15 providers that employ over 500 individuals including 27 Veterans through the program.

While this is a start we still have a long way to go towards providing equitable opportunities for these individuals. According to a recent study published by SourceAmerica the  Unemployment rate in the state is still 54.4% for disabled workers, compared to a much lower overall unemployment rate of 4%. (US Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Challenge Unlimited (CU) employs approximately 342 individuals across our AbilityOne Contract Sites. CU AbilityOne employee, Matt Driver,  began working at the Paul Findlay Federal Courthouse through the AbilityOne Program and recently celebrated his 10 year work anniversary. He has also been acknowledged for perfect attendance and has since moved into his own apartment.  Check out what Matt had to say about his experiences in the caption below!

Matthew is pictured in a blue Challenge Unlimited t-shirt holding the gift card that he was presented with for perfect attendance this year.

“Challenges” and Future Directions

While the AbilityOne Program has achieved commendable success, there are challenges to address:

Awareness and Advocacy: Raising awareness about the program is crucial to attracting more customers and expanding the scope of employment opportunities.

Skill Development: Investing in ongoing training and skill development ensures that participants can excel in their roles and adapt to changing demands.

Technology Integration: Embracing technological advancements can open up new avenues for individuals with disabilities to contribute meaningfully.

In conclusion, the AbilityOne Program stands as a beacon of hope and progress in the realm of disability employment and inclusion. By empowering individuals with disabilities to unleash their potential, the program doesn’t just create jobs—it creates a sense of purpose, belonging, and a brighter future for everyone involved.  As employers look to fill the gap in today’s labor force they need to consider people with disabilities, who are a valuable largely untapped labor pool. Not only does employing people with disabilities fill an urgent need for businesses, but it can also have a holistic positive economic impact that can benefit the larger community.

Celebrating a lifetime of service!

Los Angeles, CA 2009 – Source America Advocacy Conference – Back row from left tom right: Mike Robinson, VP of IT & EVS, Deb Snyder, VP of Operations, Don Schwaab, Board Member; Front row from left to Right: Scott Gibbs, CU Project Manager and Evelyne Villines Award Winner, Source America Representative, and Debbi McMahon

It was 1978. The movie “Grease,” starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, was released, and the disco era was at it’s peak with the release of Saturday Night Fever. Most importantly, significant amendments to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 were expanded, prohibiting discrimination against individuals with disabilities in programs. This set the stage for what would create a strong disability civil rights movement, and after graduating from Greenville University with a B.A. in Psychology, a young woman with a passion for helping individuals with disabilities began her career at Challenge Unlimited.

Debbi McMahon didn’t know when she made her first major career move out of college that it would be the only one she would ever make, but it was, and we are so glad she chose Challenge Unlimited. Debbi excelled with our organization and rose to a leadership role, serving as the Executive Vice President of Programs since 2014.

She has committed her life to the mission of providing opportunities and independence for individuals with disabilities and helped countless others realize their passion for the work as well. She has been a shining light for our staff and clients and a constant reminder of why we all do what we do at Challenge Unlimited.

Debbi and Challenge Unlimited Board Chair Tom Morrissey and Board Member Jim Kasten

On June 21st, we celebrated Debbi with a luncheon at our Administration building. Debbi’s husband, daughter and grandchildren, staff and Board Members were in attendance.

Co-workers told stories about Debbi’s work and how far Challenge Unlimited has come under her

leadership. Thank you Debbi for your service and hope you enjoy your well deserved time with you family. We hope you will come back to visit soon!

Debbi McMahon & Family hold up a sign Congratulating Debbi on her retirement. made by Debbi’s Grandchildren

AbilityOne Success Story – A little history – Scott Gibbs receives Evelyne Villines Award

Some things have changed at Challenge Unlimited over the years but our mission remains the same “to provide opportunities for individuals with disabilities to live, work, and participate in the community.”

Evelyne Jobe Villines was a charismatic speaker with a sense of humor that lit up a room, but her story doesn’t start there. She contracted polio at the age of 3 and like many children with  disabilities she suffered from lack of understanding, opportunity and one teacher even sent her home with a note that said “I don’t have time to teach a handicapped child.” Luckily for Evelyne her father was the Mayor and her uncle – the President of the school board. They were able to ensure that she stay in school and be provided with an education. (Arends, Statesman Journal, 1980) Villines turned her turmoil into triumph and went on to be a leader and advocate in the disability community, serving on numerous boards and advisory commissions in various positions.  “My own definition of rehabilitation is to ‘restore with dignity,’ and there is dignity in work, in gainful employment, in feeling needed,” Villines once said. She is often credited with helping to set the stage for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). (AbilityOne, Lesko, 2017)

Scott Gibbs’s story is also one of triumph over tragedy. Scott was in a barge accident leaving him unable to work. He had lost a lot and had been cleaning gas stations when he came to Challenge looking for a fresh start. He quickly displayed his capabilities, work ethic and ability to lead with compassion. He was promoted to crew lead, then to a supervisor role on the Scott Air Force AbilityOne Contract and eventually earned a Project Manager position on our GSA Contract.

Scott Gibbs is proof that “people with disability can and do make a difference in the workforce.” He was presented with the Evelyne Villines Award from SourceAmerica in 2009 and was invited to attend the self advocacy conference in Anaheim, CA. Scott spoke in front of leaders to advocate for opportunities for individuals with disability. Awardees were taken to Disneyland and he even got to see the ocean for the first time. He was escorted by several members of our leadership team and Deb Snyder, our Vice President of Operations even joined Scott on a tour of The Queen Mary.

Hear more about Scott and his success story in the video below.

#WeAreCU #ThrowbackThursday #AbilityOne #SourceAmerica #EmployAbilityOne